City of Spirits

Zürich, 29 December 2015:

“Zürich´s relationship to the world is not of the spirit, but of commerce.” (Carl Jung)

“Not so long ago, Zürich was famed chiefly for being the cleanest, most efficient city in Europe – prim, but devoid of soul.” (Rough Guide to Switzerland)

There is the city everyone assumes Zürich to be:

“zu reich” – German for “too rich” – a city only capable of doing business, a powerful and secretive city, comprised of gnomes scurrying about corridors of bank vaults forever counting their gold.

This is a stereotype long-outdated yet undying in its durability.

Herman Melville wrote in his masterpiece Moby Dick:

“It is not down in any map.  True places never are.”

Beneath the image of a city, far away from what we see and what we pass by every day, there exists a romantic aura.

A place is never fully known, never fully surveyed.

Within every place are destinations and lifestyles secret and surprising, with the power to surprise and delight us, to shock and astonish us.

Places are never discovered, but rather they are rediscovered and reinvented, whether these places be at the ends of the earth or at the end of the street.

Even a city such as Zürich has its lost spaces, its hidden geographies and secret histories.

And though my explorations of Zürich have been limited both by time and expense, every visit to this city, wherein my wife resides four out of seven days a week, uncovers for me a city I again and again find myself reimagining, reinventing, rediscovering.

There is far more to Zürich than meets the eye.

It is a city of ancient ruins and abandoned walls, of curious museums and strange places of worship, of secret gardens and transformed edifices, a city of the unusual and the offbeat, a dark city with an underground pulse.

With the move of my wife to Zürich for most of the week over the next three years, I have been invited to explore this city (and simultaneously rediscover the person who is my wife), to delve into its secrets and mysteries, to explore its warrens and alleyways.

A few days shy of the end of an old year, I begin exploring Zürich´s uniqueness, its hidden corners and unusual aspects.

Where Lake Zürich narrows and empties northwards into the Limmat River, where a hill called Lindenhof was formed by the retreat of a glacier, the Romans took an existing Celtic settlement and fortified it to administer the surrounding area.

They built the city´s first stone buildings, established vineyards and called the place Turicum.

Turicum would serve as a customs post at the border of the Roman provinces of Gallia Belgica and Raetia and here goods would be transferred between the Zürichsee (Lake of Zürich) and the river Limmat.

The earliest written record of Turicum is a gravestone from around 200 AD/CE for the son of a customs officer.

Translated from the Latin:

“Here lies Lucius Aelius Urbicus, who lived one year, five months and five days.

Sweetest son of parents Unio, a freedman of the emperor, officer of the Gallic customs port of Turicum and Aelia Secundina.”

At the top of the stone:

“To the spirits of the dead”, the Manes, the deities representing the souls of deceased loved ones to whom offerings are made.

Take a tram to Rennweg, then climb the southern slope of the Lindenhof to see the gravestone.

At the top of Lindenhof: a wonderful view of Zürich and the Limmat River.

I meet Jess from America on a day´s layover in Zürich after sending time with his wife´s family in Kenya.

He too has discovered the Lindenhof and despite the cold has an impromptu breakfast picnic of bread and cheese.

I point out for him, from our mutually enjoyed vantage point, where to find the Fraumünster church with its Chagall windows.

Besides the gravestone, little remains of Turicum.

Beneath a hydraulic trap door outside Lindenhof 4, deeply buried within the hill are the excavated walls of a Roman building.

South of the Lindenhof, beneath a toyshop, are the ruins of a thermal bathhouse complete with underground heating system.

The bathhouse was a popular spot for Turicum´s 250 inhabitants and was conveniently located beside a dock.

North of the Lindenhof, on the Sihlbühl plateau, a temple where gold bracelets and rings were recovered, now sits the Urania underground garage with only information boards to suggest what was.

Only unremarkable Roman walls beneath an almost invisible trapdoor and an inobtrusive grave marker midway on a wall climbing up a hillside give hint to an Empire that once upon a time had expanded and established itself here.

Only the name and the Mane of a long-departed baby boy bear witness.

And from where does Lucius Aelius Urbicus observe we remaining mortals photographing Roman walls, urban pigeons and the chilly waters of the Limmat River?

One may descend the hill and ponder this question within the walls of graceful Fraumünster or mighty Grossmünster or sturdy St. Peter´s.

For it is within their walls that spirits of other ages and ideologies have fought and struggled for control of man´s passions and beliefs.

As I wend my way through the cold and chilly morning streets downhill towards the Limmat and the holy trinity of the aforementioned churches, I contemplate questions both small in scale and large in scope.

I think of the sadness of the parents Unio.

No parents should ever have to witness a child die before they do.

How did the boy Lucius die?



The cold stone marker does not say.

I think of the “glory” that was the Roman empire.

“Rome, so often admired and copied for its military conquests and administrative government, “built 50,000-seat arenas to watch the slaughter of humans, beheaded criminals at the dinner table for entertainment, persecuted Christians by coating them with oil and setting them on fire, and called the rest of the world “barbarians”.” (Terry Deary, Dangerous Days in the Roman Empire)

We conveniently forget the bloodshed upon which Rome was built and expanded.

We somehow marginalize the millions of slaves whose blood, sweat and tears form the foundations of those institutions we so admire.

We recall the victors and forget the victims of our histories.

In the West we enjoy luxuries while the rest starve and struggle to survive.

The Roman empire may have perished, but inequality and injustice still reign supreme.

I visit graceful, slender-spired Fraumünster, a beautiful church boasting a breathtaking series of stained glass windows by Marc Chagall and Augusto Giacometti.

No one knows exactly just when the grand ol´gal Fraumünster was founded, but it is known that in 853 King Louis “the German”(817-876), grandson of Charlemagne, signed over to his daughters Hildegard and Bertha a monastery that already occupied this site on Münsterhofplatz below the Lindenhof.

The daughters became the first Abbesses of the new Benedictine convent, which was occuped by noble women and received protection and estates from Louis.

Amongst the murals inside the cloister of the Fraumünster two behooded women stand behind a stag with glowing antlers, a reference to the legend of how the site was made known to Louis.

Does the majesty of a convent require a legend to explain it?

(I wonder if the legend of the stag with glowing antlers partly inspired American Robert L. May to create Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer as an assignment for Chicago-based retail giant Montgomery Ward in 1939.)

In 874, Abbess Bertha consecrated the simple, towerless basilica and had a crypt built to house the relics of Felix and Regula, Roman Christians and the adopted patron saints of Zürich.

According to legend, Felix and Regula were siblings, and members of the Theban legion under St. Maurice, stationed in Agaunum in the Valais.

When the legion was to be executed in 286, they fled to Zürich where they were caught, tried and executed.

After decapitation, they miraculously stood to their feet, picked up their own heads, walked forty paces uphill and prayed before lying down in death.

They were buried on the spot where they lay down, on the hilltop which would become the site of the Grossmünster.

The legend cannot be traced beyond an 8th-century account, according to which the story was revealed in a dream to a monk called Florentius.

It largely contributed to the massive conversion of the inhabitants of these regions to Christianity and had such an impact on Zürich that these saints still appear on the coat of arms and seal of Zürich today.

During the 11th century, the convent abbesses gained considerable rights.

In 1045 German King Heinrich III (1028-1053) granted the convent the right to hold markets, collect tolls and mint coins, effectively making the Abbess the ruler of the City.

Furthermore, in 1234, Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II (1220-1250) promoted the Abbess to the rank of Duchess, giving her the right to appoint Zürich´s mayors.

The Fraumünster´s present structure was built during the 13th century.

In 1336, with the establishment by Rudolf Brun (1290-1360) of Zürich´s guild laws (Zunftordnung), Brun became the City´s first independent mayor not assigned by the Duchess.

As power devolved to the guilds, the influence of the convent waned.

Then along came Huldrych Zwingli, the Zürich leader of the Reformation.

The convent was suppressed and in 1524 all the icons, all the ornaments and the organ were destroyed.

Despite the dissolution of the convent, its church the Fraumünster survived.

During the following centuries, the Fraumünster became a place of worship for Veltliner (Austrian reformers) and Huguenot (French reformers) refugees, was temporarily a Russian Orthodox church and between 1833 and 1844 hosted both Catholic and Protestant services.

People now visit the Fraumünster to marvel at the Canton´s largest organ with its 5,793 pipes and the beautiful stained glass windows.

A 9-metre high rose window depicting Paradise in the north transept by Augusto Giacometti was installed in 1945.

Impressive as it is, however, it is the five explosively colourful windows in the 13th century choir, the oldest part of the present structure, that get the most attention.

In 1967, Belarussian-French modernist Marc Chagall, then 80, accepted the commission to make new stained glass for the five 10-metre high windows of the 18-metre high Romanesque choir.

Shagal Choumoff.jpg

Religion historian James H. Charlesworth notes that it is “surprising how Christian symbols are featured in the works of an artist who comes from a strict and Orthodox Jewish background.”

Charlesworth surmises that Chagall, as a result of his Russian background, often used Russian icons in his paintings, with their interpretations of Christian symbols.

Chagall explained that his chosen themes were usually derived from Biblical stories and frequently portrayed the “obedience and suffering of God’s chosen people.”

Marc Chagall remained true to his motto:

“When I create something from my heart, almost everything goes well”.

The blood red Prophets window features Elisha watching Elijah mount to Heaven in a chariot of fire, with Jeremiah in divine blue awaiting above.

On the opposite wall, the Law window has Moses looking down upon the disobedience and suffering of people following a horseman into war, while Isaiah prepares to proclaim a message of peace to the world.

On the left of the three main central windows, Jacob struggles with an angel and dreams of a ladder to Heaven.

On the right, an angel of Zion trumpets the beginning of eternity and the descent of New Jerusalem from the heavens awaited by a radiant King David and Bathsheba.

In the centre, the Christ window shows Joseph standing at the bottom beside the Tree of Life.

In the upper branches Mary holds the baby Jesus with the Lamb of God at her feet.

A cross is barely visible while Christ floats free of this world.

Mere words cannot adequately describe these windows nor photos truly capture the atmosphere of standing before them.

Exit the church by the narrow archway on Poststrasse.

It is narrow to restrict the decadence of women´s hooped dresses.

On the north wall a pair of iron knobs were once used to measure fabric.

In the Münsterhof, a former pig market, a tablet in the pavement:

19 September 1946

Winston S. Churchill (1874-1965)

Europe Arise”

Sir Winston S Churchill.jpg

During 1946, Churchill developed his theme of a “United States of Europe”.

He wanted France and Germany to come together and even envisioned a time when Russia would become a member of the United Nations, perhaps even a part of a single European Union.

He explained his ideas in a speech at Zürich University:

“The structure of the United States of Europe, if well and truly built, will be such as to make the material strength of a single state less important.

Small nations will count as much as large ones and gain their honour by their contribution to the common cause…

…Time may be short.

At present, there is a breathing space.

The cannon have ceased firing.

The fighting has stopped, but the dangers have not.

…The salvation of the common people of every race and of every land from war or servitude must be established on solid foundations and must be guarded by the readiness of all men and women to die rather than submit to tyranny.”

On the opposite side of the Limmat stands the Grossmünster.

According to legend, the Grossmünster was founded by Charlemagne, whose horse fell to its knees over the tombs of Felix and Regula, Zürich’s patron saints.

A column in the north aisle of the church depicts Charlemagne and his horse.

One gold-crowned statue is located high on one of the church towers, while another dominates the Münster crypt, the largest of its kind in Switzerland.

The legend helps support a claim of seniority over the Fraumünster.

Recent archaeological evidence confirms the presence of a Roman burial ground at the site.

The Grossmünster dominates Zürich´s skyline.

In a tightly-packed city of modest architecture, it looms over all like a daunting giant.

The interior is nude of decorative glory, as bare as an abandoned cellar.

In 1518, Zwingli became the pastor of the Grossmünster where he began to preach ideas on reforming the Catholic Church.

Barely a year had passed since Martin Luther had nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg church.

Zwingli proclaimed the sole authority of the word of God as revealed in the Bible and preached against Church practices.

Zürich´s congregation, democratically inclined and politically autonomous, was receptive.

In 1523, with mounting tension fuelled by an increasingly vocal opposition to clerical celebacy, monaticism, the observance of Lent and the whole structure of papal control, Zwingli was summoned to a public disputation in Zürich with a papal representative.

It says a great deal for Zwingli´s powers of persuasion and the City Council´s courage that the papal representative returned to Rome in defeat.

In 1524 Zwingli ordered the removal of the organ, wall decorations and religious statuary from the church and, in keeping with his views on Catholic idolatry, he left instructions that his own body be burnt after his death and no relics left.

Mass was celebrated at the Grossmünster for the last time in 1525.

Zwingli transformed Zürich from a sparsely populated hinterland town into a religious centre attracting students and theologians from around Europe.

But Zwingli would disapprove of what decoration remains upon and within his Grossmünster.

The pulpit and organ have been replaced and bells still ring.

As with the Fraumünster, the work of Augusto Giacometti is represented by a stained glass window.

Installed in 1932, Giacometti´s window in the choir depicts the story of Christmas.

But like in the Fraumünster, Giacometti is once again upstaged by another non-traditional stained glass modernist.

Between 2006 and 2009 German painter/photographer Sigmar Polke (1941-2010) was commissioned to provide a counterpoint to Giacometti´s work.

Dieter Frowein Lyasso&Sigmar Polke.jpeg

Polke is on the right.

Along one side of the church, Polke has filled the window spaces with thin slices of multicoloured stones in six very differently decorated windows: the Agate window, the Son of Man window, the Prophet Elijah window, the King David window, the Sacrifice of Isaac window and the Scapegoat window.

I can´t claim the same affection for Polke´s work as I do Chagall´s, but should you find yourself in Zürich compare them for yourself.

The north portal door, the Bible Door, is adorned with animals, birds and a fiddle player, near a statue of Zwingli´s successor Heinrich Bullinger.

And beside the Wasserkirche (where Felix and Regula were martyred) and the Limmat stands a statue of Zwingli himself.

In the afterlife, Zwingli scowls.

Stroll over to St. Peter´s.

You can´t miss it.

Its sturdy foursquare clock pierces the skyline and its clocks´ faces are the largest in Europe with a diameter of 8.7 metres and minute hands almost four metres long.

Here a Roman temple of Jupiter once stood.

Here beneath the tower lie the remains of Rudolf Brun, the first independent mayor of Zürich.

By the time of the Reformation, St. Peter´s was still the only parish church in Zürich (all other churches at the time belonging to monastries).

During the Reformation, however, St. Peter´s power was reduced and its altars smashed as being too opulent.

St. Peter´s was consecrated in 1706 as the first Presbyterian church erected under Protestant rule.

Above the pulpit is a white stucco relief with the quotation in German of Matthew 4:10:

Worship the Lord your God and serve Him only.”

Not unusual to see in a Christian church.

But what is unusual is the name of God, Jahweh, in Hebrew above the quotation.

As you leave St. Peter´s, once again look up at the tower.

From medieval times until 1911 the church tower was used for fire watching, the angled windows on the four sides providing a 360-degree view of the surrounding neighbourhood.

The duty of the watchman was to look out of the window every 15 minutes.

If he saw a fire he would sound an alarm and hang a flag from the window nearest the blaze.

Glance back at the church door to see the gravestone of a poet and physiognomist (a person who could judge your character simply by your appearance).

Johann Kaspar Lavater (1741-1801) was a preacher so popular that parishioners would reserve seats in St. Peter´s to listen to him.

Lavater was born in Zürich and was educated there.

At barely twenty-one years of age, Lavater greatly distinguished himself by denouncing, in conjunction with his friend Henry Fuseli the painter, an iniquitous magistrate, who was compelled to make restitution of his ill-gotten gains.

In 1769 Lavater took Holy Orders in Zurich’s Zwinglian Church and officiated until his death as deacon or pastor in churches in his native city.

His oratorical fervor and genuine depth of conviction gave him great personal influence.

He was extensively consulted as a casuist (a person who uses reasoning to resolve moral problems by extracting or extending theoretical rules from particular instances and applying these rules to new instances) and was welcomed with enthusiasm on his journeys throughout Germany.

His writings on mysticism were widely popular as well.

He introduced the idea that physiognomy was related to the specific character traits of individuals, rather than only general types.

As a poet, Lavater published Christian Songs (1776–1780) and two epics: Jesus Messiah (1780) and Joseph of Arimathia (1794).

More relevant to the religious temperament of Lavater’s times are his introspective Prospect of the Ages (4 vols. 1768-1778), Secret Journal of a Self Observer (2 vols., 1772–1773) and Pontius Pilatus, or Humanity in all its Forms (4 vols., 1782–1785).

Lavater published 632 Aphorisms of Man (terse sayings, expressing general truths, principles, or astute observations, and spoken or written in a laconic and memorable form).

For example:

“Who, under pressing temptations to lie, adheres to truth, nor to the profane betrays aught of a sacred trust, is near the summit of wisdom and virtue.”

Lavater was a pal of “the Shakespeare of Germany”, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832).

The two would have long conversations over wine at the nearby Restaurant Kaiser´s Reblaube, where there still is a room called the Goethestube.

Lavater later had a falling out with Goethe, who accused him of superstition and hypocrisy.

Lavater lived just across the St. Peter Hofstatt, one of the Altstadt´s loveliest squares.

During his later years, Lavater’s influence waned, and he incurred considerable ridicule due to his vanity.

His conduct during the French occupation of Switzerland brought about his death.

On the taking of Zürich by the French in 1799, Lavater, while trying to appease the aggressors, was shot by an infuriated grenadier.

He died over a year later, after protracted suffering borne with great fortitude.

The weather is cold, bitter, biting.

I foolishly left my winter coat and gloves at my wife´s flat and wear my leather jacket and only a thin sweater beneath.

I abandon the spirits of Lucius Aelius Urbicus, Zwingli, Brun and Lavanter.

I leave behind the remnants of the legacies of Giacometti, Chagall, Polke and Churchill.

I hunger for food and warmth.

Let the spirits fend for themselves.





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